The Rule of Law in an Age of Fear

By Justin Currie

Dennis Edney has dedicated the last 15 years of his life to defending Omar Khadr in court, pro-bono, and listening to him speak out about Omar Khadr’s life is an amazing experience. On one hand it’s a narrative, a story of slow success in the face of aversion. On the other, it’s a painful reminder of the horrors of our world. Most importantly, however, it is a gentle and polite call to mobilize against injustice. To Edney, this is the rampant disregard for civil liberties to enforce policies of security and fear. He claims our achievements in human rights are in jeopardy, and that America and the West are in violation of their international obligations.

Omar Khadr was born in Canada but moved between Canada, Pakistan, and Afghanistan with his family as a child. When he was 15, while working as a translator for individuals involved with Al-Qaeda, he was present at a compound that was to be the site of an altercation with the American Delta Force and the Afghan Militia. Reports and testimonies give many different versions of what happened on July 27, 2002, but one thing is certain: Khadr, blinded in one eye from shrapnel, was shot twice in the back. An American, Christopher Speer, died in the firefight, and would later become the “victim” of Khadr.

Omar eventually received in-field medical attention, and then was shipped to Bagram Hospital, a place as much a torture facility as a hospital. A quick look into atrocities reported from Bagram reveals hard labor for injured prisoners, sexual abuse, and humiliation.

While at Bagram, Omar confessed under torture to throwing the grenade that killed Christopher Speer. The validity of the confession is debateable, and despite never revealing any valuable information, Khadr was held at Guantanamo and regularly “interrogated” for more than a decade. Information about the facts of Khadr’s case and detainment are available online, and in a recent documentary called Omar Khadr: Out of the Shadows.

The issues raised in Edney’s talk revealed a man who has a very comprehensive understanding of the use of language, fear, and violence in the current geo-political landscape. He spoke clearly to the fact that there is a line where trading civil liberties and human rights for further security is neither functional nor desirable.

Though Edney emphasized that “we are not America,” he drew on his experiences with Omar and the Harper Government to illustrate that we are very complicit with the American practise he eloquently termed the “weaponization of grief”. He brought up Bill C-51, and Canada’s empowering of our intelligence agency, which Edney believes has become more a secret police force than anything else.

The politics of fear and grief feeds on the rhetoric being deployed by those in power. The word “terrorist” is central to this exercise. Since 2001 the “war on terror” has been shaping western politics in an extreme way, which has proven to be a huge threat to human rights and liberty; despite constantly being framed as the defense of our liberty.

The word “terrorist”, upon any investigation, proves itself to suffer from a fatal flaw—it’s dangerously vague. Conventional definitions of the word lend themselves to be too open. Anyone can be accused of causing violence and fear to affect a politically motivated change—where is the line drawn? State-sponsored actions that have fit the definition of terrorism is not referred to as such, nor is the state itself. This lends itself to a problematic use of the word, and allows for exploitation by those with privilege and authority. Edney called it a “simplistic fantasy” to assume that the terrorists, whoever they are, are attacking our liberties.

This viewpoint is ridiculous not in that there are acts of violence being committed, but because the response our governments have offered is the use of dehumanizing and polarizing rhetoric, when what we need more than ever is solidarity, understanding, and compassion.

Mr. Edney said during the questions period that he felt it was a “…privilege to take someone out of hell and bring them home. It gave my life a purpose.” To me, this speaks to the truth of how we can attempt to resolve the issues we face. The geopolitics of war and terrorism are complicated and through extreme apathy we have “got the government we deserve,” and not the government we want. Dennis called for us to stand up, contact our politicians, and tell them what we want. This is not new information, but this is coming from a man who fought within the system for more than a decade, and succeeded. This is coming from a lawyer, telling us we need to stand up against the politics of fear, and speak up for what it is we believe in. He invited us to (politely) challenge our professors—“how many of your professors are at this talk?!”—and to see the preciousness of those rights and liberties we’re losing. Don’t let instability paralyze you. It is up to each and every one of us to stand up for people like Omar, detained and tortured under a system we sponsor. It’s on us.